For my first post, it makes sense for me to publish an article I wrote a few years ago for my Intermediate Reporting class at Carleton University about the Paleo Diet. Around that time, I discovered the Paleo Diet and started following it. Thankfully, it worked and I became increasingly healthier.
And I do recommend a paleo-based diet to most people. Huge emphasis on "paleo-based." The mainstream paleo diet should be used as a template. It's a very good template. You can't go wrong by sticking to foods our ancestors ate for hundreds of thousands of years, and staying away from modern, industrialized foods. But foods not allowed on a typical paleo regimen can be quite beneficial for some people. And likewise, some foods can be problematic. I'm a huge proponent of the 80/20 rule.
For example, I eat white rice, organic corn and green beans regularly. These foods aren't a part of a strict paleo diet , but my body tolerates them just fine. And they are otherwise very healthy foods. But at the same time, I can't tolerate eating too many egg whites as it causes my asthma to flare up, yet eggs are an essential part of the typical paleo diet. So technically I don't even follow The Paleo Diet, but still speak very highly of it. It's a great place to start, but your mileage may vary.
Michael MacGregor says he’ll never eat bread again. Or cereal. Or pasta. In fact, he says it’s highly unlikely he’ll ever eat dairy again either. Actually, it’s much easier to list the types of foods he will eat – meat, fish, eggs, nuts, fruits and vegetables. That’s it. Nothing else.
MacGregor is not traditionally a picky eater. But two years ago he started following the paleolithic, or paleo, diet, which focuses on eating only natural foods available to humans between 2.5 million to 10,000 years ago.
MacGregor says within one week, his skin cleared up, the quality of his sleep improved, and he had an abundance of energy throughout the day. Then over the next four weeks, his body naturally shed unwanted body fat and packed on five pounds of muscle.
“I was finally eating the right foods and properly absorbing all the nutrients I needed,” he says. “Now everything I eat powers and fuels my body efficiently.”
The Whitby, Ont. native says he believes the paleo diet is truly the ultimate way of eating. And he’s not alone.
Followers of the diet are scattered across North America, eating anything a caveman would have hunted down or gathered. Although the diet is very restrictive, they say it’s not like other fad diets and short-term weight loss strategies. Rather, it’s a complete lifestyle change, eating the foods humans are meant to eat.
This stone-age way-of-eating excludes all foods introduced over the last 10,000 years after the agricultural revolution, including grains, dairy, legumes, salt, refined sugar and processed oils.
Proponents of the diet argue human evolution hasn’t been able to keep up with the rapid shift in the modern man’s diet – 10,000 years is a very small slice of the entire evolutionary pie – and this has led to obesity and numerous related diseases such as diabetes and heart disease.
Paleo fitness and nutrition experts say obesity rates would be significantly reduced if more Canadians abandoned their modern-day diet and adopted a paleo-like regimen. They explain 61 per cent of Canadians are at an unhealthy weight because they are eating the wrong foods, not necessarily eating too much of it.
They say by returning to the paleo diet, Canadians can achieve great health and a perfect physique because it is the ideal diet for human fitness and well-being.
But the federal government and other experts beg to differ. They say the diet is an impractical way of dealing with the obesity epidemic.
The Government, High-Carbohydrate Diets, and Obesity Arthur De Vany, the “grandfather of the paleo diet” and author of The New Evolution Diet, says people are starting to realize the traditional low-fat, high-carbohydrate diet is unhealthy.
“We look around and see people getting fatter all the time,” the 73-year-old says. “They’re trying to limit their fat and eating a lot of carbohydrates, but it’s just not working.”
According to the Canadian Health Measures Survey released by Statistics Canada last year, 25 per cent of Canadians are clinically obese. Twenty years ago, 16 per cent of Canadians were labelled obese.
De Vany says the Canadian government has actually contributed to the rise in obesity by providing flawed food guidelines over the years.
“Food guidelines are blatantly driven by commercial interests,” he says. “Now they have red faces because the science is falling apart and obesity is exploding.”
Ottawa-born Mat Lalonde, an organic chemist at Harvard University with an intense scientific interest in paleo nutrition, agrees and says food guidelines in Canada aren’t based on reliable science.
“They’re based on government shenanigans, lobbying, and companies that don’t want to lose money,” he says.
De Vany says the human body has evolved and thrived for millions of years by eating lots of animal fat and protein, and small amounts of carbohydrates.
Yet for the past 60 years, the Canada Food Guide has told Canadians to follow a diet low in fat and high in carbohydrates.
De Vany says it’s in the government’s best interest to promote a high-carbohydrate diet since Canada produces and exports large amounts of grains.
David Thomas, a spokesperson for Health Canada, says the organization stands by the Canada Food Guide as an efficient tool that helps Canadians make healthy food choices.
“It translates the science of nutrition and health into a practical pattern of eating,” he says. “The guide consolidates, in one easy-to-use source, the best available evidence for Canadians relating to health, nutrient needs and the food supply.”
Fat: The Misunderstood Ingredient Jennifer McLagan, a Toronto-based food expert and writer, doesn’t buy it. She says the Canada Food Guide is “skewed” by telling people to lower their fat intake and fill up on carbohydrates.
“Canadians are told this all the time because there’s a huge amount of money tied up in low-fat, no-fat foods,” she says. “Then they think they’re eating the right way when they’re really not.”
In her award-winning book Fat, McLagan argues Canadians have robbed themselves of good health by drastically reducing their intake of animal fats over the past 30 years and filling up on carbohydrates.
“Everybody’s so brainwashed that fat is bad, yet fat is essential for good health” she says. “It’s a myth that’s hard to break.”
But McLagan says this myth needs to be broken as it has contributed to the rise in obesity.
“It’s only been in the last little bit that we’ve feared animal fat,” she says. “And we’re not healthier.”
Lalonde agrees and says the common belief that “fat makes you fat” is wrong.
Both Lalonde and McLagan explain that the anti-fat movement gained momentum in the 1950s. After influential American scientist Ancel Keys conducted a worldwide study that linked saturated fat intake to coronary heart disease, governments “jumped on board” and started regulating the amount of fat in food products.
“But it was totally incorrect,” McLagan says. “Everyone believes it now, including the medical community.”
Lalonde says Keys blamed the rise in heart disease on increases in saturated fat intake, even though his findings showed a parallel increase in sugar intake as well.
According to McLagan, researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health recently gathered all studies that have tried to link saturated animal fat to heart disease. After looking over all of the data, no direct link could be found.
The Importance of Meat McLagan says Canadians today should be more nervous about eating grains than meat.
“Humans are designed to eat meat,” she says. “We can even survive eating meat exclusively.”
Canadian Arctic explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson lived on a full-meat diet for nine years in the late 1800s while living in an Inuit community. He only ate meat, fish and fat.
When he returned home, medical authorities were amazed by the quality of his health. He agreed to take part in a study that would later be published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, proving an all-meat diet was entirely healthy for humans.
Paleo experts also point to Kitava, a non-westernized population that dodged the agricultural revolution and still follows the hunter-gatherer lifestyle today. Surveys show these modern people, who still eat like cavemen, are free from obesity and all the modern diseases plaguing Canadians.
Lalonde says if all Canadians shifted to a meat-heavy, paleo-like diet, obesity would be nonexistent within three generations.
“This particular lifestyle is very useful because you are removing each and every one of the factors that can lead to obesity,” he says. “It really works.”
De Vany says it’s “impossible” for someone who follows the diet to become obese.
Tina Moffat, an associate professor who teaches the anthropology of food and nutrition at McMaster University in Hamilton, disagrees and says the paleo diet is not a feasible solution to obesity.
“Different diets work for different people,” she says. “Saying one diet is going to work for all of us is not effective, nor can all of us stick to a diet like that.”
Moffat insists humans have evolved and don’t need to eat like cavemen to be healthy. She says there are many healthy people who follow vegetarian, grain-based diets and can digest milk efficiently.
“We’ve a very adaptable species,” she says. “One of our hallmarks is that we can eat many different types of diets and flourish.”
The Diet That Heals Lynda Frassetto, a doctor at the University of California who recently conducted a paleo diet experiment, says the health benefits of a pre-agricultural diet are “simply amazing.”
Frassetto and her team took healthy sedentary subjects and put them on a strict diet of lean meat, fruit, vegetables and nuts. Everything else was strictly forbidden, she says.
“In about 10 days, everybody improved on this diet,” she says. “If you follow this diet, you will be better off.”
Frassetto says in only 10 days, the average drop in cholesterol level was almost 30 points. She says most cholesterol lowering drugs can take up to six months to produce such results.
She says obese patients would most benefit from this diet, and the next step is to test it on them.
But she stresses this is not like other short-term diets.
“This is more of a diet that you can literally live healthy on forever,” she says. “You can always eat this way because it’s actually really good for you.”
De Vany says he hopes to see more people spread the message he started 30 years ago.
“The research is finally starting to come out,” he says. “People need to realize we’re just hunter-gatherers in pinstripe suits.”
Lalonde says he knows the information is out there, it just needs to be “brought to light.”
“I see it happening from the ground up,” he says. “It’s going to be a long process.”
According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, the obesity rate in Canada is expected to increase by another five per cent over the next 10 years.
McLagan says the battle starts with people having all the facts.
“People have no idea anymore, they’re all so totally confused,” she says. “We just need to get more information out there so they can make good decisions about their health.”
MacGregor says although knowledge is power, he knows it’s very hard for people to follow through with the diet.
“Ideally, I think it’s the diet for everyone,” he says. “In practice, it’s not the diet for everyone.”
But he says if you are motivated enough, you can do it.